Romney, Obama Vie for Who Can Hurt Education the Worst

In [last] week's round in the nation's presidential contest, education got tossed into the ring and slapped around by the opposing candidates and their spokespeople. Who won the round is anyone's guess, but poor education got mauled in the process and tossed into the spit bucket.

The bout started with presumed challenger Mitt Romney unveiling his education agenda at the Latino Coalition's Annual Economic Summit in Washington. In his presentation, Romney declared American public schools to be in "crisis," and he criticized President Obama for being "unwilling to stand up for kids" and unable to "be the voice of disadvantaged public school kids."

The jabs continued later the same day with Romney, speaking at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, declaring that the Obama administration's policies had resulted in "millions of kids…getting a third world education" and accusing the president of not being "a champion of real education reform in America" like he, Romney, would be. He cast his proposals for education as a commitment to "the civil rights issue of our time."

The Obama campaign countered these criticisms with their own about Romney's record as governor of Massachusetts where he cut literacy programs, caused teacher layoffs, and "vetoed a bill that would have limited class size in early-grades and one that would have created universal prekindergarten."

But don't be mistaken that the sparring campaigns were intent only on laying a glove on each other, because caught between the opposing campaigns, taking the brunt of the beating, were educators themselves and the reputation of America's public schools.

At the outset of their arguments, both campaigns begin with a narrative that public education in America is in "crisis," our schools are "failing," and radical "reform" is the imperative of the day. And as for that full-throated devotion to the "civil rights issue of our time," well, we've certainly heard that before.

Where the campaigns tried to score on each other was in the sacred realm of DC policy, where terms like "choice, accountability, and reform" are inflated with mythic technocratic significance by the Very Serious People. And left totally out of the melee was whether either candidate can come close to telling the truth.

Take that "education crisis" for instance.

A week before the political fisticuffs broke out, Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, engaged in some truth-telling about education in a commencement speech at the Loyola University Chicago School of Education. A transcript of the speech, appearing at Valerie Strauss' blog at The Washington Post, lays out some of the "real facts" that are rarely spoken by candidates for political office or the courtiers and stenographers who follow them.

According to Rothstein, the case that "politicians of both parties, leading educators, and philanthropists like Bill Gates" make about America's "failing" schools is based on "imaginary facts."

"You may be surprised to learn," he explains, "that African-American elementary school student achievement… has been improving so spectacularly that in math, the average black student now performs better than about 90% of all black students performed less than a generation ago. What’s more, black elementary school math performance is now better than white performance was in the previous generation."

What? America's public school are succeeding? How can that be?

Wait, it gets worse: "The gains have been almost as great for middle-schoolers in math, and for elementary school students in reading," Rothstein continues. "Policymakers, pundits, and politicians ignore these gains; they conclude that you, educators, have been incompetent because the test score gap hasn’t much narrowed. But the reason it hasn’t narrowed is that your profession has done too good a job — you’ve improved white children’s performance as well, so the score gap persists, but at a higher level for all."

And lest you think these gains can be credited to the all-powerful "reform" movement, here's the real kicker: "Most gains were posted in the 1990s, before the test-obsessed accountability system called No Child Left Behind."

Oh, and those international rankings that continue to chart "America's decline" compared to other countries? The truth is, once the scores are disaggregated according to poverty levels, US children score near the top. Problem is, of industrialized countries, America has the highest child poverty rate, save for Mexico.

The other commitment both camps make, to treat education like a civil rights issue, is also in many ways disingenuous. As David L. Kirp recently pointed out in his op-ed piece in The New York Times, politicians of all stripes continue "ceaseless and cacophonous debates about how to close the achievement gap," as they continue to ignore the "one tool that has been shown to work: school desegregation."

The research evidence is quite clear:

The experience of an integrated education made all the difference in the lives of black children — and in the lives of their children as well. These economists’ studies consistently conclude that African-American students who attended integrated schools fared better academically than those left behind in segregated schools. They were more likely to graduate from high school and attend and graduate from college; and, the longer they spent attending integrated schools, the better they did. What’s more, the fear that white children would suffer, voiced by opponents of integration, proved groundless. Between 1970 and 1990, the black-white gap in educational attainment shrank — not because white youngsters did worse but because black youngsters did better.

Not only were they more successful in school, they were more successful in life as well. A 2011 study by the Berkeley public policy professor Rucker C. Johnson concludes that black youths who spent five years in desegregated schools have earned 25 percent more than those who never had that opportunity. Now in their 30s and 40s, they’re also healthier — the equivalent of being seven years younger.

Yet, instead of our presidential candidates decrying the increasing segregation of America's schools and pressing for more equality among the races, they continue to place the burden of minority education attainment on public schools alone. Kirp concludes:

The failure of the No Child Left Behind regimen to narrow the achievement gap offers the sobering lesson that closing underperforming public schools, setting high expectations for students, getting tough with teachers and opening a raft of charter schools isn’t the answer. If we’re serious about improving educational opportunities, we need to revisit the abandoned policy of school integration.

Unfortunately, joining in the presidential campaigns' abuse of public schools is, too often, the mainstream media covering the contest. Although instead of contributing blows themselves, they tend to act as enablers.

As Wonkette's Kris Benson observed above the fray, the role of most news organizations covering the back-and-forth between the parties is to "just type" what one side says, "type out something the other guy says, and then put maybe like an 'and then' or a 'but' to connect them. Or maybe just cut and paste from press releases so it looks like you did some actual reporting."

For all intents and purposes, if you're in the general media and you get assigned to cover how political candidates treat education and public schools, Benson explains, "You don’t need to interview any teachers or anything, and see what they think about school choice, and you definitely don’t need to talk to students or parents or follow up with any hard questions or give any context, or talk about how school choice has worked out in communities across the country." Just type.

It's quite likely that in the upcoming election, the candidates' stances on education will not be strong determiners of the outcome. With the economy, the Bush tax cuts, and Wall Street sucking up most of the oxygen, public school children and their families, who are now, in fact, a minority of households, may not garner the attention they deserve. And that may not necessarily be all that bad.


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